"There is No Straight Line to a Just Food System": What We Do with Our Bodies Until Then


David Pritchett | Ecology & Sustainability | Commentary | August 5th, 2019



Two Kinds of Farming

The summer of 2012 was hot in the Midwest. By the fourth week of temperatures over ninety degrees Fahrenheit, and over two months without rain, the grass was brown and many of our crops in Northeastern Indiana were not faring much better.

I lived on a twenty-six acre farm, three acres of which my friends and I were homesteading and vegetable gardening. Our farm - "Bluefield Farm," named after the abundant chicory with its blue blossoms - was an oasis in the middle of an industrial agriculture desert. The surrounding landscape, on the other hand, was filled with acres of corn and soybean. Most of the farm lay pastured with organic hay, but we planted market gardens on about one and a half acres of the landscape.

The work was hard but rewarding. Gardens require thoughtful soil preparation--compost or manure ensure proper nutrition for the plants, and manual tillage loosens the soil so that roots can take hold and take up crucial minerals, but unlike plows, does so without killing beneficial worms and fungal threads. Hand tillage and planting of even two acres can be backbreaking, but shared labor lightened the work, and even made it enjoyable. Mentors helped us to know when to start seeds, how and when to transplant, and offered tips and strategies for dealing with insects and weeds without utilizing chemicals. Late night research provided information on companion and succession planting, to negotiate plant tolerance and space. And always, the gardens humbled us with our amateur knowledge of how to grow enough to feed ourselves with a margin of extra.

The contrast between our farm and the surrounding agricultural practices was evident on a daily basis. Our small-scale gardens were planted with seedlings before the surrounding fields were dry enough for the tractors to till. Even in the heat and drought of 2012, we had some crops that survived. The diversity of our planting plan meant that although some of our vegetables did not tolerate the hot, dry weather, some did. Surrounding us though, were thousands of acres of soybeans and corn that desiccated into brown stalks without the water they needed. The large scale of those farms of hundreds or even thousands of acres was brittle and fragile.

But it was an event that summer - a disaster - that truly marked the difference between industrial food production and the small scale agroecology we practiced on Bluefield farm. Up the road just a quarter mile was another kind of farm. A chicken farm, but more properly just a collection of large industrial buildings. This was an egg production facility, alleged to provide all the eggs for all the Kroger grocery stores east of the Mississippi. I believed this to be true, because it consisted of four buildings, each a quarter mile long and one hundred yards wide. The factory boasted of two million hens, each housed in a cage constructed such that the daily egg born of their bodies was moved on a conveyor belt to be collected, cleaned, bleached, and packaged. Production was mechanized to facilitate as little human intervention as possible, but workers were still needed for various tasks - one of the inauspicious duties was the daily chore of collecting birds dead in their cages and throwing them out.

I was in town one scorching day when I heard the news from one of the locals - the giant fans, big as airplane engines, just couldn't keep up with the heat. Those big buildings became giant ovens, and three hundred thousand chickens died from hyperthermia.

When I got home from town, I rushed over to our small chicken coop, constructed of leftover odds and ends of wood and tin nailed onto a frame of two by fours. Our ten hens were fine, pecking away at the occasional insect, and fussing about as they generally did under the shade of a tree. For the rest of the day, though, I could hear the commotion of large machinery in the distance. I was told that they buried the dead chickens--all three hundred thousand--in a massive heap of feathers, flesh, and bones.


Three Pillars of White Heteropatriarchy

Scholar of Indigenous Studies, Andrea Smith, wrote a short but incisive analysis of the interconnected nature of racism in the United States. Her thesis was that while various racialized groups experience racism in different ways, their struggles for liberation are connected as each form of racism is a pillar in white supremacy.

The first pillar is the logic of slaveability/capitalism. The logic of slavery anchors capitalism and at its worst renders black bodies as nothing more than property to be used in the cotton fields, or, after the 13th amendment, to be put to work via Jim Crow laws. Despite eventual abolishment of Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration of black persons today continues the logic of slavery by corporate prisons and prison work for low wages.

The second pillar of white supremacy, according to Smith, is the logic of genocide/colonialism. This logic holds that native people must constantly be disappearing. The myth of the Americas as open landscape for the taking necessitated the genocide of indigenous peoples who had lived in relationship to the land for thousands of years. Religious rhetoric fomented this genocide, calling the "New world" a "new Israel," which of course meant that the colonizers had the right to murder the indigenous inhabitants of the land. The logic of genocide perpetrated the forced displacement of native nations onto reservations and continues today in the myth of the disappeared Indians, spoken of as the original inhabitants who are now vanished.

The third pillar of white supremacy is the logic of orientalism/war. This logic sees Oriental nations (inclusive of the Middle East) as perpetual threats to the superior civilizations of the West. While these exotic foreigners are not disappeared or owned, they loom on the horizon as a source of fear, and thus represent the reason for the creation of the military complex that takes over the national budget of the United States and perpetuates the control of the globe by Western nations. The "War on Terror" that allows everything from drone strikes to water-boarding and indefinite detention of brown bodies continues due to this logic of the foreign threat which justifies perpetual war.

Why discuss racism and white supremacy in an essay about agriculture? Food justice advocates already argue that the food system is inherently inequitable. Class and race have too much impact upon access to healthy foods. Fresh vegetables and less processed foods cost more, and food deserts exist in many urban neighborhoods dominated by people of color.

But analysis of food injustice often misses the explicit links between racial injustice and the manner in which white supremacist logic has affected the land itself. The heart of industrial agriculture extends the three-fold logic of white supremacy against nature itself: just as capitalism commoditized Africans into slaves, so too does profit enslave the soil to constantly produce; along with genocidal policies toward Native Americans came ecocidal land management that disappeared mature ecosystems; finally, the perpetual war against the foreign threat was directed toward pests and weeds. In what follows, I look more deeply into each of these pillars of white heteropatriarchy and how they affect the land community.


Slavery

Just a short walk down the road from Bluefield farm was an old graveyard, with some markers dating to the mid-1800's. Scattered elms and oaks shaded the cemetery, and it offered a quiet place to think. I went there often, sometimes in the heat of the day for a break from weeding, and other times at night to sit pensively under the moonlight. The last part of the ten-minute walk from the farm required a walk up the knoll atop of which lay the gravestones. I did not think much of this rise in the landscape until I heard a story regarding this phenomenon. As it turns out, old cemeteries like the one I frequented often sit higher on the landscape for a reason. These cemeteries were established in the early days of settlement by Americans in the Midwest. As farmers cleared land and farmed for over one hundred and fifty years, poor land husbandry led to significant soil erosion across the landscape. Areas immune to this loss were areas that had never been cleared and farmed--places like graveyards.

Slavery, the fundamental capitalist logic behind white supremacy that allows bodies to be monetized, extends in industrial agriculture against the soil itself. This story of slavery, mineral depletion, and soil erosion goes back to the heart of the European settlement of the Americas, to the earliest of colonies.

In 1606, a shipment of colonists funded by the Virginia Company, a group of wealthy London investors, landed in eastern Virginia. They founded the colony of Jamestown, but struggled to survive, much less to turn a profit for the Virginia Company. But soon the colonists discovered that tobacco grew well in the climate and began producing thousands of pounds to ship back to England. The crop was so profitable that farmers grew only the little food they needed to feed their families and utilized the rest of the land to grow tobacco. By 1617, the colonists were able to send twenty thousand pounds of tobacco in one year across the Atlantic.

But the crop depleted soil fertility at an unsustainable rate. A tobacco plant requires ten times the nitrogen and thirty times the phosphorus that most food crops need. This meant that soon tilled for tobacco soon had to be abandoned, and more land cleared for the crop. After a decade of exporting tobacco, Jamestown colonists petitioned for new land due to soil exhaustion. In addition to the problem of depletion, tobacco farming caused severe erosion. Farmers piled up soil in mounds by hand or with a plow around each plant and left bare. Rains of any significant amount thus washed much of that bare soil away.

The work of tilling and harvesting tobacco was hard, and land clearance was even harder. Land-owning colonists soon capitalized on black and white indentured servants to help with this difficult work, but by the mid-17th century, African slaves with no prospect of freedom were brought in for the task. Within a century, there were over a hundred thousand slaves in the Chesapeake Bay region.

Cash crop agriculture soon led to the rise of class in this New World for the colonists. Wealthy landowners who could afford slaves cleared new land, farmed it for tobacco or cotton until the land was depleted, and then sold the land to poorer farmers who could not afford to buy and clear new land. Once all the land had been settled, plantation owners continued to farm the same soil even with increasingly marginal returns so that they could keep their slaves occupied.

The devaluation of land meant that farmers with wealth did not need to properly tend the soil or care for the land. As soil health declined, the productivity gap was filled by the labor of enslaved black bodies. Because white supremacy deprecated the lives of Africans, the importance of healthy soil itself could be trivialized under slavery.

Although slavery was outlawed (but still exists in the form of prison labor), this same devaluation of soil persists in industrial agriculture. Healthy soil is a rich community itself, consisting of millions of microbes, mycelium, and insects that keep organic and mineral nutrients cycling in a way that benefits not only themselves, but plants as well. But constant tillage and application of fertilizers destroys the soil community and leads to erosive soil loss and the destruction of the microbial and insect community that creates healthy soil. Under slavery, the steady loss of soil productivity was made up for with slave labor that continued to eek out marginal returns. Today, the erosion of soil and fertility is replaced by large machinery powered by fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers that make up for loss of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium due to deprivation and depletion.


Ecocide

On Nov 13, 1838, Father Joseph Petit wrote the following description of the Potawatomi Trail of Death to Bishop Bruté:

"The order of the march was as follows: the United States flag, carried by a dragoon (soldier); then one of the principal officers, next the staff baggage carts, then the carriage, which during the whole trip was kept for the use of the Indian chiefs; then one or two chiefs on horseback led a line of 250 or 300 horses ridden by men, women, children in single file, after the manner of savages. On the flanks of the line at equal distance from each other were the dragoons and volunteers, hastening the stragglers, often with severe gestures and bitter words. After this cavalry came a file of 40 baggage wagons filled with luggage and Indians. The sick were lying in them, rudely jolted, under a canvas which, far from protecting them from the dust and heat, only deprived them of air, for they were as if buried under this burning canopy - several died thus."

For the year prior, Petit had been a missionary to the Potawatomi band near Fort Wayne, Indiana. He had been away from Twin Lakes, Indiana, when the Potawatomi Trail of Death began, but had petitioned his superior so that he could join the villagers with whom he had become acquainted. By the time he was able to join the forcibly displaced Potawatomi, many had already fallen ill.

Colonialism is the logic behind indigenous genocide; this same logic conflated indigenous people with their indigenous ecosystems. What were seen as unproductive, pristine forests, were actually tended landscapes that provided for Native American life. Nut-bearing trees provided staple calories. Open meadows provided browse for deer and other game animals. A wide range of encouraged herbs and woody perennials provided for basketry, medicine, and other crafts. Even tribes that were primarily farmers were not recognized as such, since their farms did not look like those of the European settlers. Because of this, Native Americans were displaced, killed, or otherwise marginalized, and at the same time, their native ecosystems deforested and cleared for European style farms. Thus, indigenous genocide and ecocide went hand in hand.

The United States government had made multiple attempts to assimilate the Potawotamis. President Jefferson, ever the champion of the farm, expressed his hope to integrate the tribe into European ways of farming. In a letter to Chiefs Little Turtle and Five Medals, he relayed the following: "We shall with pleasure see your people become disposed to cultivate the earth, to raise heards [sic] of useful animals, and to spin and weave for their food and clothing." (Edmunds, 160).

A few Chiefs had expressed interest in learning settler agriculture, but the overwhelming majority of Potawotami had no interest in the hard lifestyle. Attempts by Quakers to create a model farm to teach the Potawotami failed; the few men who started to assist with farm work soon lost interest, and the leader of the effort, a man by the name of Phillip Dennis, soon gave up.

While the Potawatomi did assimilate somewhat by adopting some of the textiles and goods that Americans sold, they maintained their own traditional lifeways. They continued to live in the wigwam-style house common to the region, and planted small gardens of corn, beans, and squash in the summer, supplementing their diet with hunting in the winter. Officials and missionaries agreed that the tribe had not made strides toward "white civilization." They "adhered with tenacity to the manners of their forefathers while everything around them has changed," according to one report (Edmunds, 227).

Potawotami lands were ceded piecemeal over a quarter century, starting in 1816. This process was complicated by the multiple Potawatomi chiefs involved, as well as the many federal agencies and agents. Population pressure from setters arriving from the east caused problems for the Potawatomi traditional lifestyle. Over hunting and trapping by fur traders and settlers had reduced the deer-herds and small game which the natives depended upon for winter food. Settlers were happy to hunt in Potawatomi lands, but were angered when the Indians encroached upon their farms and settlements.

A conflict in LaSalle county, Illinois, was paradigmatic of settler-indigenous relations in the area. A man named William Davis set up a mill and a blacksmith shop on Indian Creek. He dammed the creek to power the mill, which prevented fish from swimming upstream where a village of Potawatomis lived. This disregard of their food supply angered the villagers, and tensions grew. Davis refused to give in despite being warned by other Potawatomi chiefs who attempted to intervene, and he gathered more settler families around his homestead in an effort to dig in. Eventually, a group of forty Potawatomi attacked the settlement, killing Davis and other men and capturing some women and children.

American settlers continued to pour into the region. Even where Potawatomi had agreed to cede land or allow settlement, land was occupied and cleared for farming so quickly that Chief Metea complained, "the plowshare is driven through our tents before we have time to carry out our goods and seek another habitation" (Edmunds, 220). When new lands were opened for settlement after sale or treaty, often the land-hungry farmers would take up residence before surveyors had properly demarcated the sections belonging to Potawatomi and those open for settlers, creating tension and confusion.

Growing tensions and rising populations of settlers added to the "Indian problem." By the time President Jackson had signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, the Potawatomi had already sold much of their land, and lost much of the land community that gave them food, medicine, and shelter due to the continual encroachment of white settler farms. Stipulations in the Indian Removal Act were that the relocation of tribes would be voluntary and would move them to land west of the Mississippi.

In 1836, Abel Pepper, commissioned to attempt to purchase the remaining reservation lands in Indiana, compiled a group of dubious Potawatomi leaders he called "the Chiefs warriors, and headmen of the Patawattamies of the Wabash." Although this group had little claim over the land or recognition from the villagers, the Senate recognized the treaty as valid and ratified it. Chief Menominee, one of the leaders who refused to sign or acknowledge the treaty, gave the following charge, worth quoting in full:

"The president does not know the truth. He, like me, has been imposed upon. He does not know that you made my young chiefs drunk and got their consent and pretended to get mine...He would not drive me from my home and the graves of my tribe, and my children, who have gone to the Great Spirit, nor allow you to tell me that your braves will take me, tied like a dog....the President is just, but he listens to the words of young chiefs who have lied; and when he knows the truth, he will leave me to my own. I have not sold my lands. I will not sell them. I have not signed any treaty, and will not sign any. I am not going to leave my lands." (Edmunds, 267)

But the President was not just. White settlers had already been promised the lands around Twin Lakes, Indiana, that Menominee refused to cede. Squatters came, intent on taking the best land before the crowds, and a Potawatomi party burned a squatter's hut, leading to retaliation from settlers, who then burned down a dozen Indian homes.

Pepper requested military assistance, and Senator John Tipton gathered one hundred volunteers for a militia to remove the remaining Potawatomi to land in Kansas. On August 30, 1838, Tipton had the remaining villagers gather, and his militia surrounded the villagers and at forced them to enroll for removal, giving them five days to gather their things. Five days later, the march began. Still, Menominee would not leave the village, and so was forced at gunpoint to go, and placed under arrest with two other chiefs who also resisted.

The march began on September 4, 1838 and concluded sixty-one days later after traveling over six hundred miles to the Osage river in Kansas. Of the forty-two people who died during the march, twenty-eight were children. Petit survived the march and much of what we know is recorded in his journal.

With the Potawatomie and other indigenous tribes largely displaced from their ancestral lands, American settlers were free to turn the landscape into the acres of corn and soybean so quintessential to the modern Midwest. Of the roughly twenty million acres of old growth forest that once covered the state, about two thousand acres remain. Settlers cleared the land for farms, and harvested timber for building, fuelwood, and railroad ties.

Indigenous removal leads to ecocide. Contemporary indigenous groups vocalize this in their advocacy for themselves and for the ecosystems with which they are in relation. The Baiga, who inhabit an area of jungle in India, declare, "the jungle is only here because of us." Similarly, a statement by indigenous peoples from the Amazon articulates their understanding of the deep interrelationship:

"We have used and cared for the resources of that biosphere with a great deal of respect, because it is our home, and because we know that our survival and that of our future generations depends on it. Our accumulated knowledge about the ecology of our home, our models for living with the peculiarities of the Amazon Biosphere, our reverence and respect for the tropical forest and its inhabitants, both plant and animal, are the keys to guaranteeing the future of the Amazon Basin, not only for our people, but also for all humanity."


War

Once the snow melted on the Indiana roads, I would often ride my bike from our farm to town. I learned quickly, however, that early summer was the spraying time. I pedaled past acres of corn and soybean down the straight county roads. When the tractors were out, pulling large tanks labeled "anhydrous ammonia," I had to hope the wind was blowing the fumes away from the road. When the breeze was not in my favor, I did my best to pedal furiously, holding my breath and hoping I could pass the cloud without inhaling too much of it. At other times, the chemical applicants were not labeled, or were dropped by prop plane, and so I could not know what noxious admixtures made it into my lungs. These various chemicals - fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides - so crucial to industrial agriculture, were at the same time devastating to the community of creatures that tried to inhabit the same space as this technological system.

Summer evenings highlighted this. My friends and I could climb the roof of our barn and see our pastures and the night air above them glowing with the mating rituals of fireflies populating our land; in contrast, the farm fields around us were dark, bleak, and barren. This nightly event was a reminder that our insistence on working with spade and hand rather than by chemical mattered a great deal to the other creatures - insects, birds, and small mammals - who shared the land with us and whose interconnected lives led to a healthy ecology on our small farm. What Smith names as the third pillar of white supremacy, the logic of perpetual war, manifests itself in the war against pests and weeds.

The connection between war and agrochemical has been solid since at least World War I. Fritz Haber, a German chemist, revolutionized agriculture by finding a cheap way to convert inaccessible atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia, a form of nitrogen that could then be converted to explosives or to agricultural fertilizer. This discovery allowed Germany to continue producing both munitions and food despite trade blockage of traditional sources of nitrogen. In addition to his creation of the nitrogen fixation process, Haber became infamous by using his chemistry genius to invent weaponized chlorine gas.

Haber devised a system of pressurized canisters of chlorine which would release mist from the German trenches, needing only a steady but not too strong wind to blow the chemical fog toward Allied forces. On April 22nd, 1915, the German front in France had such favorable winds. After the release of the canister valves, a greenish-yellow cloud moved slowly toward the British and French forces in their trenches. British field marshal John French described the effect of the gas on soldiers: "smoke and fumes hid everything from sight, and hundreds of men were thrown into a comatose or dying condition." But what was for Allied forces a death cloud was to the German army a sight of beauty.

From the journal of German Lieutenant Becker:

"As the cloud rolled forward, it was yellowish-green, a hellish, sulphurous haze. As the sun broke from behind a cloud this new and monstrously beautiful image was lit up before us."

Wrote German Lieutenant Drachner:

"A poisonous green smoke drifted out of the fire trenches as far as the eye could see. One could see the landscape bathed in the most beautiful sunshine as though through a fine veil. It looked like the scene from a fairy tale."

In 1925, the Geneva convention banned the use of chemical weapons in warfare. However, chemicals were still used in creative ways in warfare activity. One of the most widely known of the herbicides used against enemies is Agent Orange. American forces employed this herbicide in Vietnam for a two-fold purpose: first, to defoliate jungle areas where Viet Cong hid, and second, to obliterate crops that could feed the Viet Cong. Over the course of nine years, the United States military sprayed almost twenty million gallons of the chemical over South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The defoliant did its job and destroyed over five million acres of forest and crop land. "Only you can prevent a forest," joked American soldiers while deploying Agent Orange, in a sardonic nod to Smokey the Bear ads. In addition to wiping out the food systems of many peasant farmers, pollutants from Agent Orange persisted in the environment and continue to wreak devastating effects on the land and Vietnamese.

Insecticides have not been used explicitly in war but represent war against nonhuman life. The best-known synthetic pesticide, DDT, led to a Nobel Prize for its manufacturer, Paul Müller. Its toxicity for non-target species was detrimental and came under fire in the wake of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. DDT is a persistent organic pollutant which can linger in soils for up to thirty years. The chemical is fat soluble, and thus accumulates up the food chain, especially in birds that depend on insects in their diet. In addition to its toxicity to aquatic and avian life, it has been associated with human cancers, and is known to disrupt hormones.

More recently, neonicotinoids have been used as pest control. However, this class of chemicals has been linked to loss of bees, in which it has been shown to impact foraging and navigation, reduce lifespans, and decrease reproduction in queens. Bees are responsible for the pollination of seventy percent of all flowering plants. It is from these bee-pollinated plants that humans get more than thirty percent of our food.

A case study of the Sichuan province in China heralds the problem. Pomme fruits - that is, apples and pears - are the primary crop of the mountainous Sichuan region, where the flowering trees must be pollinated within five days for the trees to fruit. Use of chemical pesticides grew rapidly with their introduction to the region.

By 1990, a fifty percent decline in the production of the orchards was noticed, a trend corresponding to the rise of pesticide use beginning in the 1970's and subsequent decline of native bees and other pollinators. Even commercial bees introduced later to the orchards died as a result of the pesticides. Now, every year during orchard bloom, people are hired by the thousands to hand pollinate around two hundred thousand trees within the five-day window.


An Apocalyptic Aside

In 1891, Oscar Wilde wrote a play elaborating on the story of John the baptist. The biblical account simply notes a dancer, the daughter of Herodias, who danced before King Herod and his friends. The dance was so remarkable that Herod promised her anything she wanted, up to half his kingdom, yet, what she requested--after consulting her mother--was the head of John the baptist on a platter. Her mother had her own grudge against the prophet John, who had criticized her for marital machinations. Salome, unnamed in the biblical account but known by historical sources, danced her way into the center of a conflict between prophet and power.

This short story inspired Wilde's play, "Salome and the Seven Veils." Wilde deepened the story, however, by adding the motif of the seven veils. The seven veils represent a departure from the biblical story but allude to the myth of the descent of Inanna. In the story of her journey into the underworld of the dead, Inanna encounters seven gates, and at each must remove a garment, until she stands naked at the throne of the goddess of the underworld, her sister Ereshkigal. For Wilde, the veils of Salome symbolize this movement toward the deathly realm. With the removal of each veil, death dances closer.

French artist Alphonse Allais took the story even further in its allegory of death. In his rendering, Salome removes the veils accompanied by the lusty cries of Herod. "Go on, go on," he says. Yet when the last veil falls, he continues to shout for more. Salome complies by ripping the skin from her body. And still, Herod says "go on," so she continues to flay fascia with her fingernails, layer by visceral layer, until nothing is left but bone.

Apocalypse means unveiling. Originally the word referred to the lifting of a bride's veil at a wedding but has since taken on symbolic meaning. In apocalypse, everything hidden will be revealed. But the face underneath the veil is not always good. Sometimes apocalypse is the lover who tells you they are leaving. Sometimes it is the cold calm of a doctor relaying a cancer diagnosis. Occasionally it is the brief moment before dusk when the light slants through the pines and the woods reveal a momentary beauty previously unknown. But mostly, apocalypse pulls back the fabric of cloth and skin to show the bone underneath.

For writers in the ancient genre called apocalyptic, the revealing is about power, history, and hope. Their prophetic imaginations pull back the veil on empires like Babylon and Rome to expose a view from the underbelly. This kind of apocalypse is not personal. It is as big as the arc of history. The subject is not people but powers. Kings become beasts, militaries their horns. Politics play out in the imaginal realm as the beasts vie for control. Within this imaginal realm, apocalyptic writing discloses the dreams of the disempowered. An end to oppression approaches. So many heads of so many beasts become decapitated. Magical scrolls foretell future vindication. Trumpets blast sounds of triumph. Lakes of fire and glittering cities signify the fate, respectively, of the damned and the delivered.

Just because apocalypse has creative imagery does not mean that it is fanciful. Apocalypse is an exercise of what anthropologist David Graeber calls "imaginative counterpower," which is to say, it helps the oppressed name the various powers that seem to control their lives, as well as to imagine an end to these powers. As oral stories, they inspire the hearer. As texts, they show the reader a view from the belly of history, from the people with a knife to their throats as the military raids the coffers and the granaries.

And always, apocalypse shows the skeletons. In the midst of kings shouting with lust, "go on" - more power, more money, ever more consolidation of resources - apocalypse pulls back the flesh and fascia to show the bone-dead trajectory of their desire.

The book of Daniel is one such apocalyptic text, written during the Antiochean rule of Palestine to aid the imagination of an occupied people. It reflects the memory of Hebrew people exiled and taken to Babylon, and thus operates in code--"we have been under the thumb of other rulers," the story seems to say, "and managed to find a way then, so we can do so now."

In the first chapter, the author sets the tone for the book in portraying Daniel and his friends as ones who-despite being captive to empire-attempt to live faithfully to their indigenous ways within it. The story introduces Daniel and friends as intelligent members of Jerusalem's elite taken into service for the king. This assimilation of members of the elite is an important imperial strategy: in the same way that if the urban grid represents a control measure for civilians, putting the social elite at the king's table essentially puts them under his thumb.

The renaming of Daniel and his friends reveals how their lives were meant to be reshaped according to the priorities of Babylon. Just as later nation-states developed surnames in order to track, and tax populations, so the renaming of newly acquired servants is a measure of the degree to which Babylon claimed authority over the lives of the political prisoners.

Daniel's refusal of the king's food constitutes the crux of the story. Patbag, the word at issue here, is the allotted meal taken from the royal coffers to meet the needs of his courtiers. Most interpreters take this refusal to be a religious one-Jews in antiquity often maintained their ethnic and religious distinction vis-a- vis food purity by observing dietary rules. In diasporic communities, food connects people to their culture. Even modern food sovereignty movements advocate for culturally appropriate food. An overlooked area of this issue, however, is that the royal court system depended upon an empire that extracted goods from the margins of empire to benefit the center. As scholar of the Ancient Near East, David Vanderhooft, notes, wresting resources from conquered periphery to the king's palace was commonplace:

"The procedure of funneling resources from the subject populations to the heartland through seizure and exaction was no less important to the Babylonians as it had been to the Assyrians…Nebuchadnezzar campaigned almost yearly in the west, in part to insure order, but also to fill the royal coffers."

The king's table would certainly be maintained by such imperial campaigns; meat and wine would be sourced from tribute from conquered nations, meat being transportable as livestock, and wine as an imperishable good which could travel distance without spoiling. Meanwhile, For the average urban dweller in Babylon, whose had a diet that was more likely grain-based, dependent on grain was transported from the surrounding countryside. Babylon's foodprint, according to one catalogue of grain imports, consisted of an area extending from the Sippa in the north to Sealand in the south, a length of 186 miles of irrigated land. In contrast, vegetables do not travel well, so must be grown nearby.

Daniel's requested diet of vegetables and water represents an alternative to the extractive economy of empire in favor of local fare that could not be stolen from distant places. The refusal of the king's table food, therefore, can be read not just a dietary preference but rather as an act of defiance. If acceptance of the king's food symbolized political allegiance, the alternative diet was an implicit rejection of the king. The four friends might have to live in the king's court, but they would find ways to resist the politics of plunder epitomized by the patbag.


What We Do With Our Bodies

Bodies lie at the heart of the food system. This system is built upon a long history of enslaved bodies, displaced bodies, and bodies maimed or killed by war. Bodies still labor in the sunny fields of California harvesting vegetables. Food goes into our bodies, and builds our bodies. Poisoned food corrupts our bodies with cancer. The very soil into which we plant and harvest is itself full of the composted bodies of so many plants, insects, and animals. That very soil is understood by many to be the outermost skin of the body of the earth. So, when we talk about food, we are really talking about what we do with our bodies, with the bodies of so many racialized people, and with the body of the earth.

The food system is swallowed up in white supremacy. A commonly advocated solution to the ills of the industrial agriculture complex is to "vote with your fork," but such logic will not undo the centuries of colonization, slavery, and war that leave their mark on the landscape of food. In this context of historic and ongoing white supremacy, we must rethink our actions against the food system. "Eating locally," does not mean we have completely removed ourselves from the industrial complex. Your local food is still grown on native lands. At its best, nearly all foods depend somewhere down the chain upon petrochemicals. Too often, even when we buy organic foods, much of the labor to harvest the produce has come from undocumented workers--the very cheapness of our foods relies upon the precarious status of the brown bodies of latinx workers in the fields. And even when we do have access to locally grown and fairly traded foods, we are still in other ways participating in a system in which gentrification and redlining drive black folk into ghettos that are at the same time food deserts. In prisons, where inmates earn between twenty-five cents and one dollar and fifteen cents per hour, companies make a windfall profit off of labor, and the food system benefits as well. For instance, the grocery store Whole Foods, so prized for its conscious consumption, sells artisanal cheese and fish sourced from companies that use prison labor.

When we eat, we must do so knowing that our food has been held up by the system of white supremacy. And because our bodies are made of the stuff we eat, our flesh, too, is maintained by a racist food system. So we come to our gardens and dig in our soil with humility. Because as much as we want to be, we are not free of the complex and all-consuming system of oppression that bell hooks calls white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy. But eat we must, so let our eating be an act of discipline and hope. The discipline lies in learning, step by step, seed by seed, carrot by cabbage, how to feed ourselves. Because we cannot be free if we cannot eat, thus we cannot liberate ourselves without taking care of our basic need for nutrition. The hope resides in imagining with each bite the day when people live on lands their ancestors called home, and know that when they take food from the soil they stand upon lands known and tended for millennia by indigenous people.

There is no straight line to a just food system. But by learning from the history of white supremacy in the food system, we can begin to imagine new ways of taking care of our bodies. That will have to include allying with native people who are advocating for land. It will involve rejecting a logic of war against bodies of people, against pests, against the earth herself. It will mean moving beyond a capitalist logic of profit that requires productivity at the cost of the depleted bodies of workers, at the annual loss of billions of tons of soil. This will require work at the level of the body politic. Those who want to change the food system, it seems, must work at once on an individual basis as well as on the larger forces that shape the system.

An ecological metaphor is helpful here. Most plants have what scientists call a root-shoot ratio. This is the ratio of roots and leaves needed respectively, to harvest nutrients from the soil and to harvest energy from the sun. The plant requires both of these sources for life, growth, and reproduction. This root-shoot ratio changes over the lifetime of the plant as it grows and puts energy towards making pollen or seeds. But despite the change, the plant still has ultimate need for both the damp minerals belowground and the sunny energy aboveground. While sunlight capture is largely an individualistic and sometimes competitive endeavor amongst plants, the underground scene is quite opposite. Most plants have a high degree of interaction with the soil community - indeed, most depend upon a variety of soil microbes and fungi to survive. In addition, many species, especially trees, connect to each other by mycelium that penetrate the roots of many individuals, linking them in an underground network of shared nutrients and information. Examples abound. Forester Peter Wohlleben found that an ancient beech tree, long past having leaves to supply its own energy, was fed via its connect to other beeches by its root system.

In the same way, food justice proponents will have to establish their own ratio of working for system change at a large scale and smaller scale, more personal food practices to support their own bodies. Like plants, we must grow in our ability to nourish ourselves. Where plants increase their leaf mass in order to eat the sun, for us this means supporting local food sources, growing our own foods, and learning sustainable wild harvesting techniques. And yet, that is only half the work. We must also go deep, like plants, networking ensures that the larger food system, like a forest ecosystem, is healthy and promotes systemic wellbeing. This may seem daunting, as if I am advocating for a back and forth pendulum of energy. But rather than a frenetic pendulum, let this be like the root-shoot growth of a plant--sometimes expending more energy in one direction, but always sustaining the growth that has occurred opposite. Let our hands stay soil-tarnished from the garden while our feet yet remain strong from the march of all our bodies together toward a system that tends more deeply to all of us. Grow together, grow alone. Feed your body, yes, but also feed the bodies of others, and feed the land that sustains you. This is what it means to be human and to live on the body of the earth. This is what we do with our bodies.



David Pritchett is a healthcare practitioner, ecologist, and activist who writes at the intersection of these interests. His articles have been featured in Permaculture Magazine , Permaculture Design Magazine , The Other Journal , Missio Dei Journal , and in Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice (Wipf and Stock, 2016).